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The 5-Point Play: Brandon Boston, Jr. is oozing value, and more

Kentucky's Brandon Boston, Jr. Credit: UK Athletics

In volume six of P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, “The 5-Point Play,” basketball analyst Henry Ward is joined by fellow amateur basketball aficionado P.D. Web for something a little bit different. This week, Henry and P.D. will go back and forth to create a dialogue about some draft prospects that have been on their mind recently, from Jaden Springer and where he fits in amongst the class’s elite to Brandon Boston, Jr. and what this rocky year means for him in the long term.

Here’s what has us thinking, lately:

Henry Ward: Glad we could come together and get a little back and forth going, P.D.. I wanted to start off by talking about Brandon Boston, Jr., and specifically, his struggles with contact this year. How do you see those problems being righted in the future?

P.D. Web: I think the biggest challenge with evaluating Boston is the admission that he isn’t the prospect that was forecasted preseason, and by releasing ourselves from our priors, we can admit the obvious — Boston played poorly within a role he was miscast into at Kentucky. Boston has great creation traits (the shake, the space creation, the shooting OTD) in a vacuum, but the application has been poor because even college guards can prevent Boston from getting into situations to make those skills useful. Shake isn’t useful when teams know they can climb into a handle and bump Boston off his spots. Shooting off the dribble and space creation are both shooting dependent, and more than the shooting coming and going — the issue is that teams know they can funnel Boston into contact knowing he will struggle to finish through. That knowledge, combined with Boston’s best moves being snatches and pull-backs, has made his general shot diet tougher — hard 3s, hard self-creation, hard finishes through contact. Boston ranks in the 26th percentile of shots off the dribble, at .63 PPP, per Synergy. Boston’s finishing around the cup wasn’t much better, .84 PPP, 14th percentile. To me, the degree of difficulty on his average shot suggests a player given too much burden that he was not physically prepared for, and also not shooting as well as forecast.

As strange as it may seem, these struggles may be best for Boston long term. Boston will not be a primary expected to make reads breaking down a set defense. In his NBA role, he will be placed in a young Caris LeVert-style role: asked to create on a second side actions versus a bent defense, against secondary/tertiary wing defenders. Not being a primary comes with some long term benefits: Boston can slowly add weight and strength while he dials in his jumper, he will be asked to make easier reads and have much less of his usage depend on being an offensive engine. Teams drafting Boston will need a plan to solve the valgus collapse, to add core stability and posterior chain strength. It is easier to develop these attributes in a young player in a simplified role of C&S and closeout creation with the occasional PNR possession than it is to work on his physical deficiencies while also adjusting to being the main focus of an offense. But developing flexibility and explosiveness for skinny wings has been a historical strength of the league for the last decade — players like Brandon Ingram, Cam Reddish and Paul George all made major strides in these areas once introduced to an NBA strength and condition program. While Boston’s year has gone sideways, I feel more comfortable with his long term projection knowing a team in the 20s will slow-play his development, versus a world where Boston was the same player shooting 40% from 3 at UK and then being fed major creation minutes as a rookie.

HW: This is a very interesting case, one that reminds me a bit of Tyrese Haliburton, where a player’s draft slot seems to be a relatively sole determinant of their usage pathway. What I mean by this is that Boston will likely benefit from a fall in the draft in the same way Haliburton has so far, mostly because the level of expectations on immediate returns and subsequent development plan provide much more favor to long term success the further they slide. While Haliburton’s slip seemed to be more so his camp’s own doing, it has clearly paid tremendous returns already — slotting him alongside De’Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes, who’re each having their own personal playmaking renaissances, has allowed him to fully assimilate in the sort of hyper-connector archetype he was best-suited for all along. While Boston is a much different player, being able to slide into a situation with lower demands will let him right some of the biomechanical issues you mentioned, as well as afford him a bit longer of a timeline to do so.

One thing that confuses me within the discourse around Boston is the lengths to which people are willing to go in response to his negative year. If you watched him at Sierra or with AOT, I think the struggles you’re seeing now aren’t all that dumbfounding. Sure, the degree to which they’ve affected his output are disappointing, but it’s not like they’re new problems he’s facing. As you said, P.D., the issues are logical, specifically in terms of how easy it is to jam him at the point of attack and how much that mitigates him offensively. So, with that understanding, and with the greater context (pandemic year with an uncharacteristically bad Kentucky season) at play, I don’t see how one could rule him out as a lottery or mid-first round talent if there was excitement during the preseason. In many ways, this bogey of a season could end up being beneficial down the line, and I’m not willing to buy the idea of him falling into the 20’s because of it.

One-and-done prospect Brandon Boston, Jr. Credit: UK Athletics

P.D.: Jaden Springer plays a small role at Tennessee, but his ceiling is that of a high usage guard — how have you analyzed that, and what can he show you between now and the draft that’d help that evaluation?

HW: Springer is a classic example of why there’s always an element of imagination required in the draft process, specifically in regards to projecting roles. At Tennessee, we’ve gotten the most toned-down version of the player he can be, considering what he’s done at IMG and on the UAA circuit, but have still seen the abilities that make him so exciting shine through here and there. While he’s not operating pick-and-rolls with any worthwhile frequency or driving offense by himself, Springer has been able to create advantages in the flow of the offense to the point where we’ve seen what the finished product could look like down the road. When he’s gotten more aggressive in certain possessions, the crafty dribbling, brute strength, powerful movement style and layered passing reads have all come to the forefront — something that bodes well for who he can be in the NBA.

One thing I would push back on slightly is the idea of him being a high-usage guard at any point, but I want to also make clear that this isn’t a knock on him at all. In many ways, I actually view it as a positive, and cite the same reasons for doubt behind him filling that role as proponents for why he’ll be successful at the next level. Springer has shown us how heady he can be and how capable he is of measuring his approach to pick his spots as an advantage creator, something that’s somewhat of an underrated skill in my view. We’re used to seeing college guards who go in the upper half of the lottery absorb massive usage loads throughout their careers, and are then forced to hope that they can either continue to do so effectively, or learn a different way to play. With Springer, the clay hasn’t yet been molded, let alone fired, in the same way. I think it’s fair to say that he’s a bit more talented than his level of usage would lead one to assume, but with how proactive he is as a defender, ball-mover, and passer in general, I think it’s safe to say he fits in anywhere that could use a versatile off-guard who can punish tilted defenses and be a defensive menace in every sense. And, the list of those destinations is pretty long.

P.D.: There is imagination and then there is the imagination required to get to Jaden Springer NBA Primary After Watching Tennessee Jaden Springer. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past few years is that Isolation creation ≠ all usage modes. It’s entirely possible to build a secondary usage profile out of second side creation, cuts, guard postups and C&S. How much “loose change” offensive usage Springer can gather comes down to improvement and utilization with an NBA system. Those half-space skills are going to be more valuable on a well-spaced NBA floor. A player who is good at basically everything non-primary related offensively, a defensive menace AND has a bet to self-create jumpers is suddenly one of the highest upside plays in the class.

I don’t think that it is likely that Springer will get to, say, Trae Young usage — but there are outcomes where Springer can get to a secondary usage with high level situational creation. At a certain point, Springer is so good at the ancillary scoring pathways that it adds to a real creation value. By deploying Springer in motion, where he can access his diverse usage and push him away from his weaknesses — like, self-created jumpers or forcing up shots in the medium-short range (10th percentile per Synergy within 17 feet). Evaluating Springer at a top lotto spot requires a trust that NBA orgs can develop the best of Springer without forcing him out of his comfort zone or his archetype. He really loves the Villanova post up when drives don’t create finishing angles — and man, that does not generate efficient jumpers. In the league, there will be better angles and much less cramped spacing, meaning some of these fading middys will be rim attempts. Notably, Springer is much much better at the rim, 70% on 60 attempts, rescuing his efficiency somewhat.

Springer seems to me like a guard who would thrive in a horizontal offense predicated on offensive moment and .5 decision making — and teams are more and more adopting that style in lieu of forcing heliocentrism onto a creator who can’t make the system shine. I think this trend bodes well for Springer’s projection.

Tennessee's Jaden Springer. Credit: Tennessee Athletics

HW: To follow up with your recent series on shooting developmental philosophy, I’m curious what you’re making of Roko Prkacin’s improved shooting output this year. How much, if at all, does that change your long term outlook for him? Has anything else caught your eye in the process of catching up with him?

P.D.: Not to spoil a future piece, but the shooting development shown this year has definitely kept Prkacin in my own lottery conversations — while it does seem that he has dropped out of mainstream consideration. Prkacin has always been an aggressive player with enough feel to make solid reads downhill, but he was hesitant to shoot at a real volume. His advantage has been based on “bigger, stronger, faster, harder,” despite playing against adult competition in the ABA since 2018. The hardest shooting projection to make is trying to project the growth from a hesitant shooter, or worse, a true non-shooter. Prkacin has taken another step forward, taking 4.5 3s per 36, making 33.9% of those 3s.

The jumper is still deliberate and has some release limitations, but it looks smoother than when I saw it last season, which is both praise and an indictment of it’s condition. OTD attempts are still a good ways away, and additional work must be done to speed up the release and smooth out the energy transfer. When factoring in all competitions, Prkacin is in his third consecutive year of raising his 3Par, his usage and his 3pt percentages — feats that rarely go hand in hand for what some backhandedly call “developing” shooters. It’s not great, but it’s hard not to feel better about the shot than this time last year.

Another reason to be bullish on Prkacin is the surrounding skills. He has a large creation burden for Cibona, ~25 usage — initiating offense from a number of different spots around the floor. If, if, the shooting holds at a volume, Prkacin deserves to be discussed as a potential dribble/pass/shoot wing 4 — with the passing being the swing skill. Prkacin has proven to be a disruptive defender, a reasonable shooter and a constant presence at the rim. The cross court flashes have been there for some time, but the processing speed has trailed behind the highlights, should that progress…Prkacin is like Ethereum to Kuminga’s Bitcoin: lower entry point for a lower ceiling, but also less of a chance of the bottom falling out. Well, relatively. Roko Prkacin, Ethereum Kuminga!

HW: The point made about the exceptional congruence with which Prkacin has been able to develop his shooting year over year is a very important one. Certainly, as you said, there’s plenty of ironing out to be done — the shot still has about three different hitches in it at different levels and takes forever to get off — but the low hanging fruit is there to make it ultimately more comfortable sooner rather than later, in my view. Therefore, we turn to the approach indicators: how good of a shooter does he think he is? And the answer is overwhelmingly positive, judging by the consistent improvements across attempts, usage, and conversion efficiency. When thinking about his likely role, this rate of consistent growth is exceptionally encouraging. For someone who’s going to be punishing closeouts that are already created for him as an advantage facilitator and occasional pick-and-roll operator, there’s only a baseline level of volume and efficiency required to be a contributor. Prkacin seems to be well on his way to that level.

I also love the point about how it likely impacts his development from the standpoint of how he’s able to earn necessary game reps. The tug-of-war between front office vision, player development staff, and desire to win games is a battle that always has at least one loser, unless of course there’s a way to fudge impact while being brought along in accordance with the plan. Prkacin’s skill as an ancillary playmaker and defender mean he’ll be able to contribute sooner rather than later, and the newfound willingness to punish a compacted defense from range will only add to that. While he’s not necessarily a plug-and-play type of pick, I definitely agree that he’s getting a little lost in the shroud of Croatian mystery amongst the rest of the American crowd, when considering what his eventual outcome would be. #EthereumKuminga all the way.

Projected 2021 draft pick Roko Prkacin

P.D.: Low-ceiling, “winning” players are famously valuable for winning teams, but does Day'Ron Sharpe have more value beyond that? Could he rise into a legitimately gravitational big, in one way or another?

HW: This is a fascinating concept that I find myself talking about more and more in discussions with fellow draft-heads: what is the value proposition at hand when deciding between a “safer,” more likely-than-not stud role player and a “riskier,” high-ceiling, potential building block with a wider range of outcomes? To me, the question at hand seems to get lost far too often when looking at the bigger picture in the draft. While every team is at a different stage in their team-building process as they surge towards contention status, nobody is above the need for gaining uniquely useful role players along the way. In my view, this is often most prevalent with bigs, given how few of them can meaningfully raise the ceiling of a championship team in a way that the rest of the pack can’t. Sharpe’s passing, in particular, gives credence to the thought that he may be one of these few.

So, in a roundabout way, I’d say yes and no. While I don’t think he’s likely to add all that much more to his game to where he’s filling a different archetype, I still think he’s earned merit as a potential first rounder given the value of his most translatable skill at his position. A definitively more impactful player when he’s operating on the perimeter, Sharpe’s passing, awareness, and baseline level of functional athleticism make him really intriguing as someone who can play a highly sought-after offensive role on a relative budget. While the shooting is yet to come around, he should still be someone who can operate DHOs and make decisions at the top of the key amidst off-ball actions with his quick-thinking and vision. We’ve seen how teams such as the Heat have benefitted from having such a player, and while by no means is Sharpe the next Bam, he will still be able to fit the general archetype, which alone is enough to make him worth the investment for a number of teams moving towards this style of play.

P.D.: Safe/unsafe is an outmoded concept. So many Spurs or Warriors players have been lower ceiling guys that win games, and yet every year we go “I can’t believe they were allowed to get THAT guy.” Devin Vassell, hello. Safe generally means, “this player can work even in his most difficult fit” and unsafe means “only the best fits return high value out for this player.” Sharpe seems like a safe guy in that framework, and I agree he is a pretty easy translation to the league, just not for those reasons. Sharpe is going to shoot, and Sharpe is going to be encouraged to shoot. The league-wide expectations of bigs who can operate in big space as a passer dictate that any player in that circumstance take the open shots. Teams will put him into downhill DHOs, and he will get really easy wide open shots when teams under the DHO [to gunk up passing lanes] until he proves he can knock down shots. If he can shoot, then all the passing and feel characteristics are heightened. So in the sense of “gravitational,” yes, even if he is a Beef Stew (Isaiah Stewart) level shooter, Sharpe’s intersection of passing and feel will warp defensive coverage and offensive planning. The history of highly coordinated, high feel, great passing bigs who didn’t return even a little shooting value is not meaningful.

How much that potential intersection will be worth on Sharpe’s second contract is a larger question of scarcity — will a generation of players raised on Jokic, KAT & AD have dramatically more center-sized +++ passers available? Is having a player like Sharpe more valuable to an organization stocked with young guards and wings who may need some creation burden displaced onto the big fella — to unlock new value pathways or potentially accelerate their growth curves? I can hear a case for organizations that need such a passing big having Sharpe 5-10 spots higher because of team-building philosophy or youth development timelines. And that’s without debating his ranking within the passing big archetype. Sharpe is very very interesting.

North Carolina's Day'Ron Sharpe. Credit: UNC Athletics

HW: To close it out, let’s touch on Marcus Bagley. I know you were a big proponent of his coming into this year, but not sure where you’re at now. In his abbreviated year, did you see anything that really changed your opinion on him, for better or worse?

P.D.: I was…surprised at the amount that Bagley struggled to translate his athleticism in the halfcourt during his time in Tempe. Bagley wasn’t the otherworldly athlete that his brother was as a high school player, but he certainly profiled as a ++ closeout creator who could punish any bad closeout at the rim. In the 12 games (350 minutes), Bagley had four dunks and 18 total rim attempts. Rather than a slasher who could really shoot, Bagley’s freshman profile was a shooter who could occasionally slash. This athleticism didn’t translate in the way I thought defensively, either — 1.6 block % and 1.4 steal % aren’t bad numbers for a spot-up shooter, but they aren’t impressive considering the flashes of reactive athleticism Bagley had shown in high school and AAU. Bagley has the abilities to be a defensive disruptor, but lacks the positive tape to demonstrate that consistently. Locking in and making a possession-by-possession impact would lift his stock for 2022 dramatically.

It’s not to say that Bagley wasn’t a solid shooter — .347 on 8 3PA per 40 minutes — it’s that the connecting traits of his game didn’t quite convey to the level to support my pre-season optimism. I still think there is a prospect very much in Marcus Bagley, but it seems like my lottery excitement was a year too early.

HW: ASU was a bit of an odd amalgamation of archetypes and unclear schematic goals this past year, and Bagley definitely was a victim of the surrounding situation. However, this also isn’t to say he wasn’t part of the issue too — the named lack of rim pressure was a bit odd from a prospect, who, in high school, dominated the Adidas circuit with his powerful athleticism that he used predominantly to create rim attempts. Certainly, contextual issues compounded this problem, but we simply didn’t see the prospect we thought we were getting, as you said. It seemed that there were certain issues of engagement at times once the wheels fell off a bit, and although that’s not a plus in a vacuum, it is in the sense that an extra year with a different set of teammates and an increased role could do a lot of good for Bagley.

While the defensive problems persisted, the shooting did translate immediately and the slashing had obvious cloaks preventing it from being showcased. I’m rarely a proponent of a player returning to school if they have an opportunity to get drafted, but in Bagley’s case, doing so would likely lead to a staunch difference in upfront investment, were he to perform closer to what you and I expected. If he were to leave now, he’d likely be treated as a versatile shooter with some off-the-dribble creation and defensive tools that need to be sharpened, but down the line, those connecting aspects you touched on could begin to shine in a way that would command some more consistent assignment once he does jump for the league. While professional teams are naturally better suited to bring these traits out, they’re unable to do so if those traits aren’t there in the first place. Another year at ASU could help teams come to this conclusion in one way or another, and if a sophomore year is fruitful, then we could be looking at an awesome connecting wing prospect who excels in a premium skill down the line.

Arizona State's Marcus Bagley. Credit: ASU Athletics

Make sure to check out P.D.’s patreon, including his most recent piece on shooting philosophy.

And check back again soon for the next installment of ‘The 5-Point Play.’

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